Saturday, 15 June 2013

The Cat and Mouse of Bill and Joe

The complaint’s been raised that for many years people only thought of Walt Disney when they thought of animation. It’s entirely logical. Besides the fine animation, Disney’s features of the ‘40s all had some kind of gimmick that was exploitable by the popular press. Meanwhile, the other studios punched out short after short, and shorts had long become the stepchild of the money industry. And, to be honest, after 14 years of Popeye cartoons, Popeye isn’t really a news story any more.

But there were exceptions. Here’s a story from the Hollywood columnist for the North American Newspaper Alliance in 1950 about the cartoons which grabbed the attention of the Oscar people—MGM’s Tom and Jerry. And it’s one of what became a long line of stories portraying directors Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera as underdogs who overcame everything to rise to fame (in TV years, one of the things they overcame was MGM).

A few of the dates are wrong and, in the literal sense, Tom did drink and smoke. But certainly not in the context of being part of his character like in movie dramas, which is the contrast Hanna wanted to make.

The column also shows how things have changed. There’s no mention of violence that set off nanny groups in the ‘60s and ‘70s (members of which likely saw the cartoons as children) that resulted in the emasculation of all kinds of old cartoons for TV. And while letters from two young people are excerpted, there’s nothing to hint the cartoons were solely the province of children. There’s also an interesting comment about the maid character. Perhaps it’s what led to a brief, though indiscernible full shot on “Saturday Evening Puss” later in the year. This column appeared in the Pittsburgh Press on January 22, 1950.

Tom and Jerry Provide Headaches

HOLLYWOOD—Tom and Jerry, those ever-resourceful, indestructible cat and mouse heroes who’ve been feuding in MGM’s cartoons for the last nine years, are excruciatingly funny to millions of theatre-goers the world over—but they bring sleepless nights aplenty to the two young fellows who created them.
If you think human stars have a corner on problems pertaining to public approval, you’ve overlooked the technicolored Tom and Jerry. Their fan mail is delivered in bushel baskets.
One little girl, a cat owner, wrote that she resented Tom, the cat, being so mean to Jerry, the mouse. She received a prompt reply explaining that Tom and Jerry are the best of friends and that while they play jokes on one another it’s just to provide fun for the fans.
Another wrote that she was “going crazy” because the head of the Negro maid never was shown.
“You show her body but her head is always out of the picture,” she protested. “I’ve just got to know what she looks like.” This young lady received a special drawing of the maid.
“You now have the only portrait ever made of this fine character,” she was informed. “We don’t show her in the cartoons because we don’t want to detract from Tom and Jerry. Besides, it would add work which is something to which most cartoonists are not addicted.”
An instructor in a religious institute in Philadelphia wrote that Tom and Jerry pictures are “a welcome relief from all the depressing psychological dramas.”
Modest but still proud of their unparalleled achievement of winning five Oscars in the last six Academy competitions, Joseph Barbara and William Hanna, creators of Tom and Jerry, are an unusual pair.
Joe is a handsome boy from Brooklyn. Tall, with curly black hair and dark eyes, he is good looking enough to be over on Stage 16 appearing opposite Judy Garland, instead of working at a drawing board. Joe is the city-type boy and he spends his idle time in New York.
Bill Hanna, also good looking, is a leisurely guy who wears glasses, speaks slowly, usually with a grin, and refuses to be hurried. He’s a native Californian and escapes to the desert or mountains whenever he gets the chance.
Joe and Bill share a large but non-fancy office in an upper floor of the two-story building which houses the 80 workers who turn out 16 cartoons a year, nine of them starring Tom and Jerry.
Joe’s and Bill’s flat top desks are shoved together. After discussing a new adventure for their heroes, Joe makes rough sketches of the action involved and tosses them across to Bill. When they have agreed on the final action, Joe makes detailed sketches of the characters and the action. Bill then starts these on a human production line that refines them to the final step, photography.
It was back in 1940 that MGM, unable to find suitable characters for a new cartoon series, brought Barbera from New York, teamed him with Hanna, and waited for results.
“We took two cartoon characters so old that they had been discarded by everyone else,” said Barbera, “a cat and a mouse. However, our first picture clicked, and we’ve been turning them out ever since, about 70 altogether, so far.”
“Something that probably doesn’t occur to the average theatre-goer,” said Hanna, “is we adhere strictly to the producers’ screen moral code. Tom and Jerry neither drink, smoke nor swear. Tom never even gets close to a girl cat. There are no suggestive movements.
“The only time there was even a hint of romance was in ‘Spring Fever’ [“Springtime for Thomas”] in which Tom serenaded a lady cat—from a safe distance—with a bull fiddle. In another picture he imitated Charles Boyer’s voice in talking with a lady cat. Some thought this was going too far, but we took the chance and nobody complained.”
Neither of the originators of Tom and Jerry started out in life as an artist. Bill Hanna majored in engineering at Southern California, but when he left the university halls to discover a world overflowing with engineers, he got a job in a studio cartoon department as a janitor. He has performed every task connected with screen cartoons.
Joe Barbera had a job in Wall Street. He survived the depression, but in 1934 the brokerage firm for which he worked dejobbed the unmarried men and Joe was on the street. Joe began submitting cartoons to Collier’s, the Satevpost, and other magazines, and then joined the Terrytoon company. In 1934 MGM brought half a dozen men west, Joe among them.
Barbera and Hanna probably play to a larger audience than any other producers. About 64 Tom and Jerry cartoons are always in circulation, and, since 280 prints are made of each cartoon, about 18,000 separate T. and J. cartoons are running constantly someplace or other around the globe.

Interestingly, there’s one name the story doesn’t mention: Fred Quimby, who acted as MGM’s overseer of its cartoon studio—and picked up the statues come Oscar time. No doubt his absence in the column was welcome to Hanna and Barbera as proof they were the brains behind the award-winning cartoons, something they liked to make clear in interviews to come.


  1. Yowp, your frame grab is from "The Mouse Comes to Dinner", not "Puss 'n' Booty".

  2. Thanks, TC. For some reason, my notes say "Puss N Toots" but it didn't come from that one either.